by Richard L. Dieterle

Lightning and thunder are caused by supernatural beings known as the "Divine Ones," Wakąja. These beings are conventionally called "Thunders," and since they usually take the form of various birds, they are also called "Thunderbirds." When they flap their wings, they produce a clap of thunders, and when their wings strike a cloud, it rains.1 The arch-enemies of the Thunders are the Waterspirits, who live underground in caves. When the Divine Ones strike their subterranean enemies where they live, a rumbling thunder is heard.2 Their weapon is a red hot stone which is shot from their eyes. This is what we see as lightning.3 Thus it is said that their glance can penetrate any object.4

Some Thunders are more reckless in their casting of lightning, and from time to time they strike a human being. There is a definite procedure that must be followed when this happens.

When anyone is struck by lightning, the other people would rush upon him just as they rush upon an enemy, give war-whoops, etc. They believe that this will induce the man to get up They would get out their warbundles, put on paint, etc. The reason they get up is because they are struck by the same beings that made the warbundles and thus if they other people make them regular offerings, all will be well.5

When anything is struck by lightning, it is said that the Thunders "eat" it, by which is understood that they take its essence up into themselves. Thus the yellow grass that remains after a lightning strike is said to have been "eaten" by the Thunderbirds.6 Thus the Thunders are sometimes portrayed as man-eaters.7 As Menaige tells us, the reckless use of lightning was characteristic of the Thunders ab initio:

It is one of the old traditions that when the Thunder Birds or Winaxí first appeared, they lit fires (by lightning) somewhat indiscriminately, striking everything they came across, even to the Wakcéxi or Spirits of the Water and Under Earth, whom they killed and eat of . . . They say that whenever a hill is struck by lightning, as hills often are on account of their altitude above surrounding objects, it is because a Wakcéxi is concealed under it (that is in its water-springs) whom the Thunders thus kill and eat.8

This explains why the high ground is so often struck by lightning.

Once the Thunders used lighning to rescue ten brothers who had taken the form of quails to escape an evil spirit. This spirit had taken the form of a woman, who attacked them with an elkhorn club. Because she was struck dead by lightning after the birds had cried out to the Thunders, the quails ever since have sung "bobwhite, bobwhite," to announce the coming of the rain.9

Links: Thunderbirds, Waterspirits.

Stories: featuring Thunderbirds as characters: The Thunderbird, Waruǧábᵉra, How the Thunders Met the Nights, Ocean Duck, Bird Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Quail Hunter, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, Brave Man, The Race for the Chief's Daughter, Redhorn Contests the Giants, Adventures of Redhorn's Sons, The Sons of Redhorn Find Their Father, Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, The Green Waterspirit of the Wisconsin Dells, Baldheaded Warclub Origin Myth, Bluehorn's Nephews, The Big Stone, Origin of the Winnebago Chief, How the Hills and Valleys were Formed (v. 1 and v. 2), The Spirit of Gambling, The Thunderbird Clan Origin Myth, The Hawk Clan Origin Myth, Eagle Clan Origin Myth, Pigeon Clan Origins, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Wolf Clan Origin Myth, The Twins Disobey Their Father, Kunu's Warpath, Turtle's Warparty, The Orphan who was Blessed with a Horse, The Thunder Charm, The Boulders of Devil's Lake; in which Waterspirits occur as characters: Waterspirit Clan Origin Myth, Traveler and the Thunderbird War, The Green Waterspirit of Wisconsin Dells, The Lost Child, River Child and the Waterspirit of Devil's Lake, A Waterspirit Blesses Mąnį́xete’ų́ga, Bluehorn's Nephews, Holy One and His Brother, The Seer, The Nannyberry Picker, The Creation of the World (vv. 1, 4), Šųgepaga, The Sioux Warparty and the Waterspirit of Green Lake, The Waterspirit of Lake Koshkonong, The Waterspirit of Rock River, The Boulders of Devil's Lake, Devil's Lake — How it Got its Name, Old Man and Wears White Feather, The Waterspirit of Sugar Loaf Mounds, Lakes of the Wazija Origin Myth, Waterspirits Keep the Corn Fields Wet, The Waterspirit Guardian of the Intaglio Mound, The Diving Contest, The Lost Blanket, Redhorn's Sons, The Phantom Woman, Įcorúšika and His Brothers, Great Walker's Warpath, White Thunder's Warpath, The Descent of the Drum, The Shell Anklets Origin Myth, The Daughter-in-Law's Jealousy, Snowshoe Strings, The Thunderbird, Hare Retrieves a Stolen Scalp (v. 2), The Two Children, The Twins Join Redhorn's Warparty, Earthmaker Sends Rušewe to the Twins, Paint Medicine Origin Myth, Waruǧábᵉra, Ocean Duck, The Twin Sisters, Trickster Concludes His Mission, The King Bird, The Medicine Rite Foundation Myth, Great Walker's Medicine (v. 2), Heną́ga and Star Girl, Peace of Mind Regained, The Story of the Medicine Rite, How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Spiritual Descent of John Rave's Grandmother, The Boy who was Captured by the Bad Thunderbirds, The Shaggy Man, The Woman who Married a Snake (?), Hare Secures the Creation Lodge, Ghost Dance Origin Myth I, The Sacred Lake, Lost Lake.

Themes: internal stones: How the Thunders Met the Nights, The Big Stone.


1 Charles E. Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends (Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin Press, summer session, 1927) 5; Paul Radin, The Winnebago Tribe (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990 [1923]) 239.

2 Fanny D. Bergen, "Some Customs and Beliefs of the Winnebago Indians," The Journal of American Folk-Lore, 9 (1896): 51.

3 Brown, Lake Mendota Indian Legends, 5; Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 239; Hexom, Indian History of Winneshiek County, "Religion" (unpaginated) — Informant: Oliver LaMère, Bear Clan.

4 Radin, The Winnebago Tribe, 253-254.

5 Paul Radin, "Note on Lightning," Winnebago Notebooks (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society) #18.

6 Thomas Foster, Foster's Indian Record and Historical Data (Washington, D. C.: 1876-1877) vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 3.

7 Paul Radin, Winnebago Hero Cycles: A Study in Aboriginal Literature (Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1948) 42; Paul Radin, "Winnebago Tales," Journal of American Folklore, 22 (1909): 300-303.

8 Foster, Foster's Indian Record, vol. 1, #2, p. 3, col. 3.

9 Oliver LaMère and Harold B. Shinn, Winnebago Stories (New York, Chicago: Rand, McNally and Co., 1928) 65-74. Informant: Oliver LaMère (Bear Clan).